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Is the Fault in Our Stars? The Psychology of Belief in Fate

Why we think what we think about pivotal events

For millennia, human beings have ascribed events and outcomes, both good and bad, to the workings of fate.  Our word “fate” comes from the Latin fatum, meaning “it is spoken” and is used interchangeably with “destiny.”  How many times in your life have you said something was “meant to be” or fated, and why did you say it?

There are many actions we do and don’t take in our daily lives that we don’t consider to be the result of fate because nothing important or noteworthy happens as a result of them.  Take, for example, standing in line at a convenience store, waiting to buy a lottery ticket.  You’re psyched because your astrological chart says something big is going to happen today so you have the computer “quick pick” for you.  The next day, you discover that, in fact, you didn’t have a single number right.  No big deal and, in time, the hindsight bias will kick in and you’ll no longer even remember how you were convinced this would be your moment in the sun.  

But what if, instead, you found yourself waiting in line and, as you’re waiting, you suddenly decide that you want to buy a bag of chips and forfeit your place to the tall blonde woman behind you?  Two days later, you open your newspaper to see a photo of the big winner—yes, that same blonde woman—holding a huge cardboard check and you read that her lottery ticket was a “quick pick?”  It’s at that moment that most, if not all of us, would start talking about fate.

What’s interesting is that you can be a skeptic about “Fate” with a Capital F or unseen Higher Powers of any kind and still find yourself murmuring something about “it was meant to be.”

Like the hindsight bias, the invocation of fate permits us to make sense of events and consequences that are totally unanticipated.  Adding fate into the mix can also enhance the meaning of positive events which were the result of your actions (meeting and marrying your beloved, seeing the ad for the great job you eventually land) as well as endowing choices you made which avoided unforeseen bad outcomes with a certain amount of gravitas and meaningfulness (turning down the offer from the start-up that failed six months later, not investing with the guy who turned out to be running a Ponzi scheme, forgoing the sushi that made everyone sick). 

While a belief in fate seems to contradict a belief in free agency, it appears that most of us are pretty comfortable entertaining the two—both sequentially and sometimes in tandem.  This isn’t new news since Shakespeare invoked that very tension in Julius Caesar, at the moment Cassius is trying to co-opt Brutus into the plot to kill Caesar:  " Men at some time are masters of their fate:/The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,/But in ourselves, that we are underlings."                        .

It’s not going surprise you that psychologists have been interested in the belief in fate for a number of reasons.  Since our use of upward counterfactual thinking when things haven’t worked out—imagining and considering alternative actions we might have taken—motivates us to re-strategize and correct errors in judgment, it seems like a good thing that we don’t hit the fate button every time things go wrong or, for that matter, right. 

But what decides whether we consign an event to the fate heap or subject it to counterfactual thinking?  What mental processes govern which route we take?

It turns out that there are a number of factors.  First of all, how we think about events is closely bound to when they happened—whether they are in near or distant future, or in the near or distant past.  Research by Daniel Wegner and others, for example, showed that when something is imminent, we think about it very concretely; on the other hand, when we anticipate something in the future or reflect on something that’s happened in the past, our thinking is more abstract.  So, Wegner writes, when people are getting married and are asked what they will be doing the day of the wedding, what they answer depends on when they’re asked.  If asked months before the date, they’re likely to answer in abstract terms, saying something like “showing our love for each other” or “becoming family.”  But if you ask them the day before the wedding, they’ll answer the question in concrete terms with lots of details and references to cakes, flowers, guests, and the like.  Then, if you corner them again months after the wedding, and ask them what they did that day, the answer and the description will return to the abstract and depending on how blissful they’re feeling, their answer may not match the one they offered before the wedding.  Similarly, research by Nira Liberman and others found that the passage of time also changed mental construals of events.  Once again, near future experiences were laden with details and more concrete, while distant future experiences were thought about in simpler, broader, more abstract terms.

Researchers Jeremy Burrus and Neal J. Roese discovered in a pilot study that a full 75% of their student participants believed in fate but that 85% also believed that outcomes could be determined by both fate and individual actions—the very argument Shakespeare put into the mouth of Cassius over four centuries ago.   Working from the research on mental construal, Burrus and Roese hypothesized that more abstract the construal, the more likely that the interpretation of an event would include the notion of fate. In their first experiment, framing a question about goals for their participants in abstract terms (“Why did you want to achieve this goal?”) prompted greater attribution to fate than when the question was posed in concrete terms (“How was your goal achieved?”)  Again, the attribution to fate had no effect on counterfactual beliefs that other actions could have produced a different outcome.  Their second experiment showed that as more time elapsed between the experience and thinking about it—as details fade and mental construal becomes more abstract—the attribution to and belief in fate intensified.  As the authors write,” This finding helps to explain where in life people see fate at work: as painful accidents or joyous celebrations fade more distantly in memory, and as those memories themselves become more abstract, simplistic, or schematic, attribution to fate (itself a rather nebulous concept) becomes more likely.”

It’s up to each of us to decide whether belief in fate is just another cognitive trick—like the hindsight or impact bias—or a piece of what Daniel Gilbert has called our psychological immune system that kicks in when the going gets rough and it seems as though there’s more chaos than order out there.  There’s no question, though, that thinking that something was “meant to be” helps us get through the bad times and, sometimes, puts the icing on the cake.

Copyright © Peg Streep 2014

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Wegner, Daniel M. The Illusion of Conscious Will, (Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press,2002), pp.160-161.

Liberman, Nira, Michael D. Sagristano, and Yacov Trope,” The effect of temporal distance on level of mental construal,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (2002), 38, 523-535.

Burrus, Jeremy and Neal J, Roese, “Long Ago It was Meant to Be: The Interplay Between Time, Construal, and Fate Beliefs,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (August 2006), vol. 32, no.9, 1050-1058.

 

 

Peg Streep, author or coauthor of nine books, is a New York City based writer currently working on a book about the Millennial generation.

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